1970s, 1990s, Crime/Detective, Drama, Thriller

The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather Part II (1974) / The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriters: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Robert Towne (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath
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Mario Puzo was a journalist and sometime novelist who, frustrated by his lack of publishing success and tired of being in debt, set out with determination to write a bestseller. Puzo drew on his years of experience as a journalist working for pulpy magazines to present an anatomy of the most notorious branch of the American underworld which had been partly illuminated by investigations in the past two decades. This worthy ambition paid off in spades when his novel The Godfather, released in 1969, became a runaway hit and one of the most popular novels ever published. Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures even before the book was done, who made it the test case for a new way of making movies that has since become the essential lynchpin of the movie business: the tent-pole blockbuster, a big-budget movie based on a popular property released with saturation acts of promotion. The rest, as they say is history.
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Although the first The Godfather film is getting on for a half-century old, the series’ impact and influence has probably never been more pervasive in pop culture. It’s passing obvious to note that, with their savvy in blending plot with strong yet unobtrusive style and obsession with antiheroic protagonists who simultaneously compel and repel, the Godfather films stand as an essential blueprint for ambitious contemporary television more than current Hollywood film, save for a few revivalist tyros. More immediately, Coppola’s films permanently changed the look and sound of the gangster movie to the point where talents as diverse and individualistic as Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian De Palma, and Abel Ferrara all made their separate peace with its influence. Only Michael Mann successfully defined another path for the genre. Likewise, from today’s perspective, it seems both bracing and disorienting just how many chances the studio was willing to take with their great money-spinning proposition, and the film’s production became contentious for that reason.
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But this was the Hollywood of the early 1970s, still desperately finding its feet after two decades of upheaval, trying to work out what a young audience in particular wanted and looking to young talents for the answer. One whizz-kid, studio boss Robert Evans, employed another as director in Francis Ford Coppola, because the Italian-American impresario in his early 30s could bring authenticity to the project and also would work for cheap. Coppola, scion of a cultured family as far from Puzo’s hoods as it seemed possible to get, initially balked at the proposition of making a film about the Mafia, but soon clicked with the material as a mode of exploring capitalism and the uneasy relationship of constituent populaces to power in the republic. Coppola in turn ruffled feathers by hiring the waning, industry-reviled star Marlon Brando and the barely-known stage actor Al Pacino for the two crucial roles. Evans also had the sense to assign the canny and disciplined producer Albert S. Ruddy to keep a tight leash on the production. All quite fitting for a film deeply concerned with the fraught dialogue between age’s hard-won wisdom and youthful prospect, and a study in square pegs ruthlessly shaved to fit in round holes.
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Puzo abandoned his more literary ambitions for his novel, offering a flatly recounting writing style that made for a quickly consumable pulp treat, but also offered up a substantial basis for dramatic enlargement, the arrival of the age where the successful pop novel was more than anything a long movie outline. Pauline Kael was rarely more accurate when she called what Puzo and Coppola accomplished with the film as alchemy. Puzo’s smarts as a constructor of grand narratives that could link the microcosmic with larger mythmaking, which would also later be exercised effectively in providing the story for Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), connected with Coppola’s interest in characters struggling to be more than the world wants them to be. These concerns Coppola had struggled with in his mainstream film debut, Dementia 13 (1963), made for his industry mentor Roger Corman, and his attempts to break out in the electric late ‘60s movie scene with the hipster comedy You’re A Big Boy Now (1967) and the melancholy drama The Rain People (1969). His one big studio excursion prior to The Godfather had been the backdated musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968). His best claim to fame however was winning an Oscar for co-writing Patton (1970), where his imagistic notions included the iconic opening scene of the prickly protagonist standing before a colossal American flag.
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The opening moments of The Godfather have a similar aspect blending theatrical directness and an emblematic quality close to what business lingo calls branding. Nino Rota’s sad and elegant trumpet fanfare heard of a stark black-and-white title gives way to funeral director Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) speaking to the camera in accounting both his faith in America whilst also requesting punitive action in an old world fashion from his feudal overlord. This stark episode of fatherly anger and yearning sees Bonasera asks Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the self-styled spiritual patriarch to a corner of New York’s Italian-American community and head of a crime family with fortune and influence far beyond that community’s borders, to punish the young American boys who viciously assaulted his daughter. Immediately the Godfather series’ essence is spelled out in the most concise verbal and visual terms. The dialogue evokes the faded theatrical tradition of the soliloquy: we’re in that exalted realm of drama detailing people who roam corridors of great power, sad stories of the deaths of kings and all that.
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The images, drenched in grainy shadows with warm fleshy tones, feel mindful of the bygone Expressionist style in cinema. But there’s also a purposeful echo back much further to old master painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, with a similar concept of the world is an inky zone of violence and pain where the human is both inescapably corporeal and spiritually intense, extremes of physical experience linked intimately with extremes of moral straits. There’s also the association with Renaissance Italy with all its surreal disparities of grim savagery in power and street life and beauty conjured for posterity. Coppola’s work with cinematographer Gordon Willis utilising underexposure created this look, and it became the defining expressive trait of the series. Amidst the darkness, warm hues, fleshy tones, bright and colourful electric lights, intimate places. The Godfather’s universe is a place of safe abodes from savagery, where the barbarians are ever at the gate.
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The trilogy charts the Corleone family’s travails from 1945 to 1979, with flashbacks to Vito’s childhood in Sicily and his fortunes in New York in the early century. Vito was chased out of Sicily by a vendetta, but rose by the end of World War II to a state of vast influence and authority. His eldest son Santino or ‘Sonny’ (James Caan) is the prospective inheritor, whilst the youngest, Michael (Pacino), is a college-educated and decorated former soldier Vito hopes will transcend the family trade. Middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is generally dismissed as untalented and dozy, whilst adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), a former street kid Sonny brought into the fold, has become a shrew lawyer and gains the post of consigliere or counsellor. Vito’s refusal of a proposal by Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri) to bankroll him in drug trafficking, puts the Corleones on course for war with the other heads of New York’s crime syndicates, the so-called “Five Families,” because they want to annex the political and legal protection Vito has built up as they exploit this lucrative new trade. Solozzo, with the backing of rival Dons Barzini (Richard Conte) and Tattaglia (Victor Rendina), has Vito shot down in the street, obliging Sonny to command the family whilst Vito recovers in hospital. Michael steps up and kills Solozzo along with his pet police guardian Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Michael flees to Sicily to hide out and marries young local girl Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), only for her to die in a car bombing, so when he returns to the US marries his college girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton).
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After Sonny’s brutal slaying and Vito’s death by natural causes, Michael arranges the assassination of all his foes, including his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who helped set up Sonny’s killing. Michael then moves the family to Nevada to profit from Las Vegas gambling. Part II, taking up the story few years later, sees Michael’s attempts to forge a partnership with aging rival Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in exploiting Cuba as a cash cow see Roth instead try to rub out Michael, manipulating Fredo’s feelings of resentment and implicating him in the plot. The Cuban Revolution foils all plans and Michael sees off an attempt by a Senate committee to brand him as a gangster using former family soldier Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) as a witness. Michael has Roth killed and Fredo executed soon after, whilst Kay permanently foils her marriage to Michael by confessing to an abortion and is cast out of the family, leaving Michael lonely and haunted. Part III, opening in 1979, sees Michael, immensely enriched by the casino business and now legitimate, aiming to become an international force by using his leverage over the head of the Vatican bank, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), to gain a controlling share of a valuable corporation, Immobiliaire, off the church. Michael accepts his nephew, Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent (Andy Garcia), as his streetwise heir. Vincent has an affair with Michael’s cherished daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) whilst Michael tries to make peace with Kay. Soon all of them are caught up in the ensuing chaos as rivals try to shut down the sale, including Italian political heavyweight Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), a slyly smiling, bespectacled mandarin who lurks in the shadows, and aided by Michael’s wise elder and supposed friend Don Altobello (Eli Wallach).
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The Godfather quickly earned many comparisons to Gone With The Wind (1939) as an epic film where the fortunes of a focal family are intimately tied to progressing national history, and as its inheritor in zeitgeist-defining success. There’s obvious accord between Michael Corleone and Scarlett O’Hara, as both are the second-generation representatives of families who have prospered in the New World through willingness to exploit others, and who become determined to restore familiar fortunes through means fair and foul, but eventually decimate their private happiness to accomplish their end. Even the basic structural motif of the three Godfather films of commencing with a long sequence depicting a celebration that brings together many different players in the unfolding drama feels patterned after the Twelve Oaks barbecue sequence of Gone With The Wind. But the opening wedding scene of The Godfather is also a catalogue of Coppola’s new approach to the epic, as the scene shifts jarringly from Vito’s office to the Corleone estate outside where guests mill, musicians blare out traditional tunes, and the various players in family melodrama and subcultural conflict converge to be carefully mapped and categorised by Coppola’s camera.
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Take the way Barzini is introduced, calmly having a photographer who’s snapped his picture detained long enough to strip out the film from his camera, contrasted with the way hot-headed Sonny assaults another photographer, smashes his camera, and confronts and insults the FBI agents hovering outside the estate. The difference in temperament and method of the two men is described with perfect efficiency whilst also declaring a basic theme of the series: power and character are immediately established as unforgivingly intimate bedfellows. Other vignettes are less consequential although they speak much of the dynamics of this brood, like Sonny’s dash for a quick tryst with bridesmaid Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero), whilst his wife (Julie Gregg) boasts about the size of her husband’s penis to her pals but notices her husband has left and why, and Tom gives an indulgent grin as he comes to fetch Sonny. Surrounding such episodes are general, raucous scenes of celebration that manage to seem like they’re happening entirely by accident, straying into the filmmakers’ shots, channelling documentary-like energy into a film that’s actually anything but haphazard. We see the Corleones as above all an Italian-American family, obeying mores and responding to cultural cues as natural as breathing but about to be tested. Only Michael, recently returned to the family orbit after a long excursion, seems truly uncomfortable, the product of two world-views and social definitions, harbouring his store of dark lore with guilty boding.
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Michael serves as tour guide for Kay and the audience, identifying people not just by name but by function in the family apparatus – Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) is not just a heavy but a juicy anecdote. The desire to belong to the world of Corleones is provoked, and its deviant aspects have fiendish appeal – a friend like Vito at the fore, a pet dragon in the corner like Brasi, to make problems and enemies vanish with a few well-chosen words and a little firearm brandishing. Part of the original film’s success lay in its cunning at playing this two-faced game. At once the Corleones are offered as the archetype of Mafia life but also get us to root for them as the best of a bad lot, fighting to stay alive and maintain rules of engagement. Almost all of the characters killed by Corleones in the course of the first film are either foes or traitors who endanger the family’s lives: their only innocent victims seen on screen are the unfortunate Khartoum, and one woman in bed with one of Michael’s whacked enemies. Vito’s sense of morality forbids him from turning the family to the drug trade whereas he regards gambling, liquor, and prostitution as essentially honest vices. Vito has an aspect of the folk hero, an aspect even the sequel doesn’t despoil, as a man who operates in a manner not dissimilar to the way Sherlock Holmes was once characterised, as a last court of appeal operating above and beyond mere legal and government institutions. The legendary vignette that follows the wedding scene illustrates the ruthless intelligence in the Corleone method. Tom flies to Hollywood to try and convince producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to cast one of Vito’s favourite pet projects, the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), in a war movie Johnny thinks will revive his career. After Woltz aggressively refuses Tom’s offers because he’s furious at Johnny for seducing one of Woltz’s prized starlets, the producer wakes to find the severed head of his hugely expensive stud horse Khartoum tucked into his bed.
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Another spur of The Godfather’s success was the way vignettes like this fed public interest at the time for portrayals of systems and confirmation of hidden truths behind official facades. Puzo immortalised barroom rumours about Frank Sinatra and the like and blended it with familiar factoids about the great crime bosses, with many ready analogues, including Bugsy Siegel stand-in Moe Green (Alex Rocco), who gets rubbed out by the Corleones to subsume his great creation called Las Vegas, and Roth, patterned after Meyer Lansky. The film’s many moments of verbal and behavioural specificity and quirkiness, often bordering on black comedy in their sharp juxtaposition of normality and easy acceptance of deadly extremes, provided a plethora of catchphrases – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” – and electric images, particularly the head of Khartoum in Woltz’s bed, all retain a similar buzz of forbidden lore. It’s easy, even essential, to be a touch cynical about the way The Godfather films walk a line between outright valorising and deploring of its criminal clan. Small wonder that The Godfather is only outpaced on the Internet Movie Database’s user-voted greatest movie list by The Shawshank Redemption (1994), another film that describes the same cherished macho fantasy, that with just a little bit of cleverness and dedicated amorality all forms of authority and impediment might be circumvented. Coppola himself, disturbed to a certain degree by popular revelry in the original’s glimpse of the underworld, worked to undercut the vaguely chivalrous aspect of the Corleones in Part II through such touches as replacing the horse’s head with a slaughtered prostitute.
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But it’s also fair to say that depicting efforts to retain something like a code whilst squirming in the muck is interesting territory to chart. Precisely this theme, this question of where and how to draw lines of fair play, drives the trilogy, as Michael is pushed constantly into new and dizzying abysses of behaviour; by the time he’s obliged to kill Fredo, the ideal of defending family has become a mockery, whilst Kay has detonated the rigid parameters of marriage. Kay’s complaint that “senators and congressmen don’t have men killed” is met by the archly cynical proposal that she’s being naïve and that all public life operates, to a greater or lesser extent, like the Corleones. Coppola and Puzo take the inherent tension between the Mafia clan’s view of society and the outsider’s view of the clan to a logical extreme in Part III where Michael finally finds himself up against the forces that originally gave birth to the Cosa Nostra in the first place, the entrenched and respectable yet utterly merciless potentates of Italian political and religious regime who posture in palaces but have their heavies in the streets too. The Godfather hardly invented the gangsterism-as-capitalism metaphor. But it did extend that notion into a metaphor for family and social life in general, describing a purely Darwinian sense of social dynamics where only the walls of the family castle stand in contradiction.
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The oft-repeated slogan that subordinates personal feeling to business is obviously ironic as business is only ever deeply, urgently, and dangerously personal in this world. Cagey old Roth gives a lengthy speech noting that he never targeted Michael for revenge after the death of Moe Greene because it was “the business we’ve chosen,” but this is coloured by both men’s awareness that Roth is trying to kill him anyway for reasons that patently have little to do with business sense and everything to do with ego and denial. Michael makes his first foray into criminality to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey nominally to keep them away from his father but also delivers, despite his protestations, some heartfelt payback for their treachery and brutality. The saga dramatizes a dynamic notion of masculine duty, onerous and inevitable, with the detectable corollary that the level of power and danger the Corleones court in some ways delivers them from having to reckon with the modern world, a world that slowly breaks in regardless. Vito is the ideal old-school, old-world patriarch, a man who’s used raw muscle and genius of a kind to arrange the entire world for the sake of prosperity and peace that shelters his loved-ones.
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Soon Michael steps up to replace his father and brother and take on the responsibility of “saving” his family. “You can act like a man,” Vito barks furiously at Johnny when he shows feelings of weakness, and soon chases it with the assurance that “A man who spends no time with his family can never be a real man.” This highlights Vito’s certainty that it’s the capacity for loving rather than brutality that makes a man, although his cruel schooling as a youth has taught him the two can only ever be entwined. But just how one keeps the living stem of one’s emotional life growing whilst nursing the gift for annihilation is a deep and abiding enigma Michael never solves as he slowly becomes his own golem. The Godfather’s story laid claim to territory mapped out by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby whilst struggling with its basic question as to whether Americanism could make good on the promise of self-invention and an ahistorical spree severing past from future (a kinship Coppola surely recognised, having penned an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s book that would become the 1974 version). The film’s release at the wane of the counterculture era perhaps gave it some of its signature punch in this regard, offering up a story where identity wins out over idealism and the promise of generational revision, as youth wearily steps up to the plate in the name of cold realism. Not at all coincidentally, modern cinema’s other great original myth, created by Coppola’s pal and protégé George Lucas, revolved around a similar terror of becoming one’s father. Michael’s semi-sheepish protestations to Kay that his father is “no different to…any other great man” has the unmistakable tone of philosophy at one hastily erected but also long-nursed as an internal reality.
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Before writing The Godfather, Puzo was saddened that his previous novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, strongly inspired by his tough mother, had gained little attention, and so he transcribed her character as Vito, finding success by concentrating on manly business. And yet emphasis on the criminal world as a redoubt for masculine dominance is subtly but steadily eroded by the choices women make, and by the menfolk’s hypocritical failings in regard to them. Vito’s wife (played by Morgana King and as a younger woman by Francesca De Sapio) is the model Mafia wife, capable of maintaining a hard and functional border between her domestic zone and the rest of it. She’s just as much the last of a breed as Vito; her reward is to be buried with the honour of an ideal, and spared seeing one of her sons kill another. Michael gets Apollonia and Mary killed simply by being close to them, and by his self-deluding desire to annex their innocence. Connie evolves from collateral damage decrying her “lousy, cold-hearted bastard” of a brother to his supporter and then a rising neo-Borgia who sets about supporting Vincent’s rise and ordering and performing hits. Connie’s assault and battery by her husband following a raging domestic breakdown is in a way the most violent scene in the first film, a searing evocation of what Michael will later pompously call the “things that have been going on between men and women for centuries,” whilst Sonny’s infuriated protectiveness conflates with his bullishly insensate streak, a trait that’s so predictable his enemies play on it to destroy him.
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By the climax of Part III Connie has bought into the legend of the Corleones on a much more fundamental level than Michael ever did, savouring opportunities for intimate punishments and righteous muscle-flexing. Even Kay reveals something of a gangster’s aim for where it hurts when she deliberately targets Michael’s family man pride by confessing to getting their child aborted, going so far as to tell him “it was a son and I killed it because all this must end!” Kay is soon cut out of Michael’s existence, not quite as finally and coldly as Fredo but with a similar act of erasure. The door he closes in her face echoing the end of the previous film, fulfilling its promise and threat, whilst also marking another step in Michael’s self-defeat, confirming the price he’s paying for his acceptance of duty is ossification. Puzo’s fondness of The Brothers Karamazov is plain in the first film, not just in the structural and character affinities with the Corleone boys mimicking the Karamazov clan’s conception as a troika of traits, but also in the distinctly Dostoyevskyian journey Michael commits himself to. The trilogy as a whole could be the closest thing cinema has ever offered a Confessions of a Great Sinner, as Michael experiences the fall in terms of several different faiths – in religious terms, of course, but also from immigrant aspiration to assimilation and prescribed prosperity, from the religion of family, from the cult of community.
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Michael breaks with each in the name of an unstated hierarchy of priorities, each nesting in another, until he finds there’s no bottom to his plunge. That plunge is ironically charted in a constant social rise until by Part III he’s angling to become a pan-Atlantic CEO, even as some people can still spot “the map of Sicily” on his face, the rough and lumpy look of someone who’s had his face punched in and his soul turned inside out by drawing his will to a hard and lethal edge for survival. The costs Michael pays and the spurs that drive him are unstintingly stated. His picture-perfect traditional romance with Apollonia ends in an instant of fire and blood. His father and brother are riddled with bullets. He stalks halls of a deserted hospital in increasingly grim awareness of vulnerability as he realises his father has been set up for another hit; nothing, not even the humdrum business of a New York hospital can ward off cosmic corruption, only two scared men pretending to be resolute centurions. Death haunts Michael’s every step, and he fights back with every tool at his disposal. Rites of passage recur: Michael getting his jaw broken by McCluskey seems to have happened to his old man at some point. Vito’s husky drawl and pouchy cheeks, both of which deepen as he recovers from being shot six times in the street, are charts of pain and rage echoing back to another land.
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Scenes of Part II depicting Vito’s rise squarely place him (played as a boy by Oreste Baldini and as a young man by Robert De Niro) in the great immigrant tradition of the United States in scenes intensely evocative of a wistfully recalled past squalid in its moment but loaned a gloss of romanticism by time and longing for dispelled certainties. Vito, fleeing ahead of murderous wrath, arrives at Ellis Island only to be quarantined because he has scarlet fever, leaving the Statue of Liberty as an emblem beyond the grill of his cell’s window, to be admired and yearned for but never gained. In a present-day episode of the same instalment, Michael is told in no uncertain terms by a WASP Nevada Senator, Geary (G.D. Spradlin), that he despises their pretensions and ethnic traits. Vito’s ambitions for Michael highlight him as an aborted John F. Kennedy figure, doomed by his background to be unable to erase his past in the same way the other war hero son of a bootlegger could. Coppola, who had ambitions to being an empire builder himself as he tried to set up his own film enterprise, American Zoetrope, surely identified most particularly with that aspect of the Corleone tale, fighting not just for a foot in the door but for his own corner of the world. The ironic brand of ethnic pride that informs the Godfather films is balanced by awareness of the limits of empathy such parochialism can instil, particularly in the gross racism members of the Mafia underworld display: “They’re animals anyway so let them lose their souls,” declares one mob boss as he proposes only selling drugs to black communities. But the films spoke to a multiplicity of outsider identities regardless, including as style guides for hip-hop’s ardour for outlaws.
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Coppola eagerly exploited the new absence of punitive censorship for depicting the brutality inflicted by and on the Corleones. Part of the first film’s particular cunning and art lay in the way he carefully varied scenes of bloodletting in the way he shot and conceived them. The slaying of Vito’s treacherous driver Paulie (Johnny Martino) in a car parked on the Long Island shore conflates hard irony and dreamy meditation, with the swaying rushes lending muffling music and the distant, looming form of the Statue of Liberty indifferent to the scene. Vito’s bulbous lieutenant Clemenza (Richard Castellano) waters the earth with his piss as his button man waters it with blood; that’s how a homeland is made. Most other ferocious scenes are more direct and confrontational. Even the non-lethal, entirely quotidian moments of violence, like Connie’s battery by her husband and Sonny’s attack on Carlo, are gruelling spectacles. The first death in the film, Luca’s, and the last, Carlo’s, both come by garrotting, a terrible and intimate dealing of death Coppola shoots with cold regard, particularly Carlo’s end which sees him kick out the windscreen of the car that’s also his hearse in his death throes. This is achieved in one, fixed, utterly transfixing shot from the hood, the revving engine counterpoint to the desperate struggle, a flourish Anthony Mann might have been proud of. Sonny’s death is an orgiastic consummation a man as strong and virile as Sonny requires and understands, his entire body a canvas of erupting blood and pain, under the overkill fusillade of Tommy guns aimed his way – his enemies need to annihilate Sonny in a way that so contrasts the more targeted and precise Corleone method.
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That method is described in all its intricacy and unforgiving force in the first film’s climactic sequence, where Coppola cross-cuts between assassinations whilst Michael is made his niece’s godfather at her christening. In quick succession Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene, and other foes are gunned down in moments of vulnerability and surprise by a foe more patient and devious than them, all the Byzantine plotting and aesthetics suddenly cut through by the harsh report of gunfire. Coppola turns this sequence into a ritual in itself, the blaring church organ serving as funerary score lamenting the whirlwind Michael unleashes in the name of revenge and security. This sequence became another series fixture. Coppola’s reaction to a yahoo streak in the first film’s reception was to play the sequel as a far more minimal exercise in violence, although there’s still some punchy moments, particularly when Michael’s bodyguard (Amerigo Tot) tries to smother an ailing Roth in his bed only to be surprised by some Cuban soldiers who instantly gun the hitman down. Roth’s eventual slaying mimics TV footage of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby. By Part III, Coppola was back to being more indulgent again, offering up a sequence that plays in part as a miniaturised repeat of the village attack in Apocalypse Now (1979) as Zasa and his shadowy backers assault a meeting of Family heads with a helicopter machine-gunning the collection of old men, as well as a finale that turns murder into grand opera.
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Another vital aspect of the trilogy’s mystique is the way members of the little community around the Corleones is fastidiously identified, thanks to Coppola’s attentiveness to giving each a little performative space. These people fill out the margins of this created world, imbuing it with continuity and constantly rewarding the attentive viewer, and Coppola often casts people not known for acting in such parts, including the likes of Gazzo, King, and Corman, to obtain a crackle of authenticity and nail down a character quickly by exploiting a particular persona. Figures of note range from major supporting characters like the Laurel-and-Hardy-ish contrast between Vito’s top enforcers, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), down to the people who graze the family mythos like Enzo the Baker (Gabriele Torrei). Some minor but consequential characters recur through all three movies, like Michael’s resolute goon Al Neri (Richard Bright), and Don Tommasino (played young by Corrado Gaipa and as an older man by Vittorio Duse), a Sicilian crime lord and Vito’s local partner, who protects Michael during his Sicilian sojourns. When Tommasino is gunned down by the assassin hired to kill Michael in Part III, his employee Calò (Franco Citti), who long ago guarded Michael, vows revenge and sets out on a suicide mission to achieve it.
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Other characters are fated not to last through individual episodes. The trilogy’s roster of villains rarely dominate proceedings, but there’s some marvellous miniature portraits in arrogance and menace in all three films, including Rocco’s flashy and aggressive Greene, Conte’s tensile Barzini, Gastone Moschin’s strutting Don Fanucci, Vito’s quarry in Part II’s flashback scenes, and Robutti’s Lucchesi. Lettieri and Hayden make a great double act in the first film as a hood with fierce motivation who soon plainly feels the fear of someone up against the Corleones, and a vicious old coot who confesses “I’m gettin’ too old for my job.” Some of the most vivid characterisations subsist in greyer zones of motive, like the hoarse-voiced Gazzo, himself a respected playwright, as the indignant but upright Pentangeli, and Wallach’s superficially charming yet covertly serpentine Altobello. One clever aspect of the follow-up instalments is the way they generate and hinge on nostalgia for the original. A gag at the outset of Part II, as Pentangeli tries to school some musicians in playing a decent tarantella only for them to turn it into ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ illustrates how far the Corleones have drifted from the sustenance and specificity of their roots. This also taunts the audience with the same awareness: things that seemed so cosy and alluring in the past aren’t coming back. The circularity of events – births, baptisms, weddings, deaths – drag the generational frame both forward and backward in each episode, the cyclical sustenance of family and identity constantly recapitulated. The famous musical cues of the original become diegetic aspects of the Corleone legend, offered as pieces of folk music from Sicily that provoke misty-eyed longing. The climax of Part III sees Coppola intermingling shots of Michael dancing with the women in his life, Apollonia, Kay, and Mary, each one of them lost to him in one way or another.
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Brando’s turn proved an instant resurgence to respect and clout and also gave birth to one of the most mimicked and lampooned characterisations in cinema history – even Brando himself would send it up in The Freshman (1990). The remarkable thing is that his performance eternally refuses reduction despite all that. Vito’s soft and gravelly sobriety, his shows of sudden ferocity and remnant strength when he tells off Johnny and runs from his assassins, his air of melancholy and careful drip-feed of charm, truth, and affected modesty, are utterly hypnotic when on screen and register like background radiation when he’s not, even into the sequels; he is the man who creates a world and all others are forced into mere response. Brando’s careful balance of reasonable fraternity and hinted fury when assuring the gathering of fellows Dons that he won’t break the peace unless Michael is harmed, even in a seeming accident (“…or if he’s struck be a bolt of lightning, then I’m going to blame some people in this room!…”), is one of the great pieces of screen acting. De Niro had a hell of a task stepping into his shoes to play the younger Vito, almost entirely in Italian no less, and yet he also turned in a master class in performing, not just depicting Vito’s nascent mannerisms but building on them, portraying a man whose quietness and thoughtfulness register as more interesting and dynamic than other men’s frenetic actions. His Vito watches and listens, the cogs of his mind all but visible as they turn over responses to situations. Rarely were the Oscars the two men won more justified.
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But it was Pacino who was destined to become the series’ axis and mainstay, and the trilogy charts not just Pacino maturing but also finding his feet as a screen actor. I find him a touch ill-at-ease in certain moments in the first two films, although he’s never less than an obvious star and hugely talented actor. Pacino was almost entirely new to the screen – he had only been in Panic in Needle Park (1971) before, playing a squirrely addict perhaps more in his Method comfort zone – and he failed his screen test repeatedly, but Coppola kept faith in him. The slightly clumsy, theatrical feel of Michael and Kay’s rupture in Part II betrays the way both actors were still learning to project effect and manage their bodies in a new medium; suddenly we’re back in the actor’s workshop under Strasberg’s watchful gaze. But for the most part the callow hue to Pacino’s performance was a strange bonus, giving flesh to Michael’s slow evolution and accumulation of pain and air of forced and premature solemnity. One of his best moments in the first film comes as he works up the nerve to gun down Sollozzo and McCluskey, his eyes jumping about like his pupils are fleas, offering those men a façade of thoughtful attention whilst we all but feel his pulse galloping, his nerves drugged by the oncoming moment of irrevocable action. When he returned to the role for Part III, Pacino was only just picking up his movie career after a few years recalibrating following the poorly received Revolution (1985). By this time Pacino was a man in total control of his craft and the medium, whilst the struggle with disillusion he’d been through off screen gave deep conviction to his portrait: Part III is very possibly Pacino’s greatest performance. The 60-year-old Michael as a man who’s obtained something like his father’s ability to coexist in two zones simultaneously, with a certain wry and crusty charisma balancing his weariness with the ways of the world, and he sets about courting Kay’s understanding and forgiveness with a needy streak.
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Coppola was too much of a cineaste to entirely detach himself from the classic American gangster movie. Midway through the film he offers a montage of newspaper headlines and photos in a typical old Hollywood expositional ploy, predicting his later efforts on The Cotton Club (1984) to more fully immerse himself in that style. The expanse of the narrative and attempts to make a statement about the criminal’s place in the broader sweep of history had some precursors, particularly Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). But The Godfather perhaps represented the first time since the early 1930s that Anglosphere film audiences had been exposed to a major film as vitally influenced by non-English-language cinema as by Hollywood norms, through Coppola’s borrowing of effects from the likes of the Italian neorealists, particularly Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The music score, provided by Nino Rota who had scored films for many of the major Italian directors, gave the film a haunting lustre that was also unmistakeably rooted in this cultural background. The narrative unfolds as a restless and relentless arbitration between plot and character obeying familiar Hollywood storytelling ideals, but with Coppola’s carefully worked style used to render the film an aesthetic avatar for the experience of its characters, as a hybrid of methods and sensibilities, the meditative weight of the old world influence inflect the hard and punchy necessities of American life.
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Perhaps the strongest influence, Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), dealt similarly with a Sicilian family assailed by changing times, although nominally with the social opposites of the Corleones as protagonists. If the opening wedding takes Gone With The Wind as its narrative model, it’s the climactic ball scene of The Leopard that’s the template for how Coppola shoots it. Coppola’s tendency to let his camera stand away back and allow many shots to drink in panoramic detail cut against the feverish grain of much filmmaking at the time, often placing important gestures and highly dramatic moments in the distance in his framings, like the way Vito’s death sees an out-of-focus figure collapse whilst his uncomprehending grandson remains centre-frame. Coppola’s discursive evocations of emotion are perhaps most brilliantly illustrated by the key scene in the saga where Michael realises that Fredo is a traitor. Coppola goes in for a close-up that registers Michael’s cognition of the fact, but his private squall of grief and rage that follows is then thrust into the background of the next shot.
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The context of the revelation is just as noteworthy, a ribald excursion into Havana nightlife to a live sex act with a woman “sacrificed” to a man with a colossal penis, an outsized mockery of the social dynamics of both the potency-obsessed gangland and strongman-dominated pre-revolution Cuba, and with the act of revelation itself a gag before it suddenly becomes high tragedy. Cazale, an actor who made his debut in the first film, had a potentially thankless task in his role as the family stooge, trying to make the most dispensable man in his clan a worthwhile figure. His best moment in the first film comes when Fredo fails to ward off his father’s attackers, fumbling his gun and left weeping over Vito’s bleeding form, having faced the kind of moment of truth requiring action that defines manhood in his world and utterly failed in it. But Cazale’s highpoint, and perhaps that of the series, comes in Part II when he delivers a portrait of feckless despair, as Fredo confesses his sins to Michael, at once crushed by the weight of his guilt and vacuousness but also suddenly electrified by finally expressing his resentment and frustration. His bleating protestations – “I’m smart! Not like everybody says! I’m smart and I want respect!” – become the lament for every loser in the world. Suffering utter humiliation and exile, and with perhaps the underlying sense that his days are numbered, Fredo is later seen striking up a friendship with Michael’s son Anthony, all fire doused, exhausted and acquiescent to fate.
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Coppola readily admitted to taking on the project to make money and leverage more personal work. And yet, once more in affinity with Michael, he found The Godfather was destined to remain the cornerstone of his reputation, an ideogram of his art – small wonder Part III hinges on the rude bastard offspring becoming the embraced and accepted heir. The Godfather gave his career and directorial stamp definition he hadn’t really been able to give it before that, as the material allowed him to express so many of his creative talents at once, and most of his later films are rather permutations of the various facets found here. The protagonists of his juvenilia, wayward folk seeking a place in the world and a certain sense of self, evolved through Michael into the kinds of antiheroes littered throughout the rest of his oeuvre, Harry Caul to Willard and Kurtz, Motorcycle Boy and Tucker and Dracula, titanic figures who contend with their own dark and self-consuming sides whilst chasing their illusory goals. The painful romanticism and nomadic nostalgia of Rumblefish (1983), One From The Heart (1982), and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) are prefigured by Coppola’s efforts to portray marital strife and the relentless tug of a remembered, idealised past. Apocalypse Now would take up the attempts in the Godfather films to conceive personal, psychological strife as an extension, or rather wellspring, of larger social and historical travails.
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Coppola’s most important characters experience their most cherished and transcendent truths – love, creation, loyalty – as mortifying events that torment and wrack rather than free, whilst also conceding the blessed pain of having something to care that much about and suffer for is as much part of the life drive as pleasure. As he became more of a formalist, Coppola also became more interested in the dialogue between reality and fantasy, usually worked through in the tension between cinematic artifice and raw emotionalism, although the aesthete could win out in works that are little more than rampant exercises in stylisation (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992). The dominating style of The Godfather maintained a balance: the trademark photography style successfully evoked the past through shadows and saturated colours but also allowed a fine-tip realism. The first film is dominated by the use of doorways as a constant visual motif, from Michael and Enzo taking up station at the hospital entrance to the final, famous shot of the door closing on Kay’s face with all its intimations; Coppola’s compositions so often take a squared-off, rectilinear stance in regarding buildings, facades, and corridors, that reduces the universe into two states, within and without, and correlating these to various forms of power and autonomy. Water dominates the second film with similar immersive import, the lapping waves of Lake Tahoe glow gold at night under electric light and sparkle in the sun, but become cold iron grey as Fredo meets his end out there, prefigured by the rain that sheets down the glass as Fredo makes his confession to Michael.
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The ending of the first film rings so true and plangently because it captures the way subterranean certainty underpins agreed facades. Things will be swept under the rug, silences maintained, happy illusions forcibly preserved. By contrast, Part II, for all its determined gravitas, dedicates itself to finding a new and circumlocutory way of recapitulating the old message that crime doesn’t pay in a way that cuts against the grain of the original’s indulgence of violent power successfully articulated. Michael stills wins the great game but defeats himself in the fights that mean something to him. The series obeys Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate, but it could also be accused of illustrating character type as melodramatic function. Sonny’s temper and Fredo’s weakness are their broad defining qualities, scarcely complicated. Kay represents the goggle-eyed fascination and then punitive judgementalism of white-bread society. Only Vito and Michael might be called truly complex figures. The alternations of timeframe in Part II contrast father and son on both a personal level and on a sociological one. Vito’s relationship with community is organic and outward-directed, recognising that community as a group of people who, like himself, have experienced uprooting and exile and who all have, in their way, some ideal of revenge in mind, even if it’s only against a creep landlord. His charitable and amicable streaks are laced with self-serving, but Vito clearly learns how to work people as well as work with them, a quality that Michael, who tends to reduce everything to either a threat or a profit source, clearly misses, as much as he tries to act the cool and concerted businessman.
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Vito’s struggle is with the world without, climaxing when he finally returns to Sicily and slays crime lord Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato), who killed the rest of his family, but by then only a pathetic old cripple. Michael rather contends with the inner natures of himself and the people around him: he, Fredo, Roth, Kay, and Pentangeli all are driven to self-destruction by little voices that won’t leave them alone. Michael’s world tends to shrink inwards, sheared of context and community. The mall the Corleones control in the first film, a carefully contrived semblance of suburban normality, gives way to the walled and remote compound by Lake Tahoe. At times I’ve grouchily referred to the present-tense sequences of Part II as “Gangsters In Mid-Life Crisis.” I recognise and appreciate the episode’s attempts to make overt the tragic undertone of the saga, but I still feel a touch of frustration with it. Part II is purposefully a much less gratifying and plot-driven than the first film, but some of the knit-browed self-seriousness feels strained. It also has story elements that fail, particularly the subplot of Pantangeli, which might have had more resonance if the character had been Clemenza as originally planned, but still doesn’t really go anywhere. Michael is so often so sullen and gloomy in this episode he threatens at times to become a nonentity; only his flashes of anger at Fredo and Kay wake him up. Coppola’s recreation of the look and sound of the Kefauver Hearings as seen on television is studious but dramatically inert. The episode gives Tom very little to do except for one graceful moment of instructing Pentangeli to kill himself under the cover of an historical anecdote. The scene of Kay’s leaving Michael comes abruptly and refuses to feel convincing.
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Where Part II works brilliantly is in the exchanges between Michael and Roth – Pacino’s respect for his old acting mentor Strasberg converts intelligibly into the cautious patience of one master gamester for another – and in the downfall of Fredo, which obeys the logic of Greek tragedy. Fredo’s character, or lack of it, drives him to make stupid decisions he can’t undo, just as Michael’s drives him to make smart decisions he likewise can’t undo. The scenes in Cuba are laced with a mordant sense of gangster capitalism fused with state oligarchy, illustrated with sublime humour as Michael and other tycoons are feted at a presidential banquet where a solid gold telephone is passed around. The flashback sequences are also superlative. The burnished images elsewhere are mediated here by a slightly diffused and hazy look befitting their backward-looking sense of nostalgia, nostalgia that doesn’t fend off the same confrontation with brute forces. The scene shifts from the primal rocky plain of the first shot where Vito and his mother (Maria Carta) try to bury his father only to find his older brother slain, killed in seeking a vendetta for his father’s assassination by the malignant Ciccio, to the streets of New York that teem with human industry and life, flotsam citizens of one land dashed against the brownstone shoals of another.
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Vito’s journey sees him barely avoid being slain whilst his mother is shot dead by Ciccio for buying her son time to flee by holding a knife to the Don’s throat. When the grown Vito is strongarmed by Fanucci, and the young entrepreneur, tired of being chased off and patronised, instead resolves to fight back and kills Fanucci, setting himself on a path he can’t leave but which immediately gratifies him with power. The sequence of Vito’s killing of Fanucci, carefully ambushing his foe in a grimy tenement building whilst festivities blare out in the street, has the quality of a communal dream, and stands as one of the best things Coppola ever did. The last flashback in the film is subtler, presenting a moment of totemic meaning for Michael that also again invokes nostalgia for the first film, as Michael remembers the occasion of his father’s birthday just before he went off to war, and several long-dead and disgraced characters reappear. Sonny is infuriated by his patriotic choice laced with undertones of rebellion. Fredo congratulates him. Michael is left alone at the table, anticipating Michael’s solitude as seemingly predestined whether he rebelled or became the perfect scion because of some misaligned element in his makeup.
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By Part III Michael has regained community, as the celebration of his receiving a Papal honour for charity work sees the Corleones back in their milieu, and something like the glossy, embracing feeling of a wealthy extended clan reunited has returned, in part because the processes of time has replenished their ranks, and Michael’s actions, however troubling, have bought him years of stability. Now the intruding hoods, like John Gotti stand-in Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), are notably out of place, like members of the family no-one thought would have the gall to turn up. Young Vincent is literally that, although he soon stakes a place inside the castle as a potent ally Michael sees potential in despite a temper the equal of his father – within moments of being ushered into Michael’s inner sanctum to hash out his differences with Zasa, his nominal employer, he’s tried to bite his ear off. Given that Michael’s oldest son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has chosen to become an opera singer rather than follow him into the family business and with daughter Mary given the task of managing charities, Michael uneasily accepts Vincent as the man who will fight off the new flock of circling crows. Eventually the scene shifts from New York to Sicily as Anthony makes his starring debut in Palermo in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana.
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In between machinations of plot Part III is preoccupied with Michael’s fumbling attempts to make some sort of peace with the past in general and Kay in specific. He gives her a tour of the Sicilian landscape and tries to give her and his children new insight into his background and motives, and even manages to strike up fresh chemistry with Kay although she realises he can’t ever escape the trap he made for himself. Part III has often been dismissed as an ill-advised revisit, with some preferring to ignore it altogether. But I’ve always liked it, and feel it resolves the saga with real punch by its end. It’s easy to agree with some common complaints, including that Sofia Coppola was unequal to her role, and that it misses Duvall’s presence – after Duvall refused to return after a pay dispute, Puzo and Coppola rewrote their script so Tom had died in the interim, with his son Andrew (John Savage) now a priest and a slick and urbane creature, B. J. Harrison (George Hamilton), now Michael’s trusted legal rep. Certainly, too, its mere existence despoils the symmetry of the first two parts. The absence of so many familiar faces is however turned into a dramatic strength insofar as it focuses most squarely on Michael, whose journey reaches a cruel apogee as he fumbles a chance at redemption.
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Another of the series’ pivotal moments comes when Michael talks with a genuine and kindly Cardinal, Lamberto (Raf Vallone), who will soon be elevated as Pope John Paul I, and offers a memorable parable with a stone in a well to illustrate the lack of Christian feeling in a land long dominated by Christianity. Lamberto talks Michael into making his confession with an unerring eye for spiritual pain. Michael catalogues his crimes, building up to admitting to killing “my mother’s son,” and it becomes clear that twenty years have scarcely offered a scab over the raw wound of the deed. The sarcastic correlation of religion and mob power that informs the series from the start, the aspect of funerary rite that defines the climax of the first film and the subsuming of the role of giver of life and death by the Dons, here gives way to a more urgent questioning of just what if anything a man like Michael can ask of his nominal faith, and whether redemption, both worldly and spiritual, is possible for him. He tells Lamberto he does not repent his actions, but still seeks a form of release as he tries to turn his fortune to good works and sets out to try and save Lamberto’s life after he becomes pope. The film’s resolution suggests that the price for such redemption might be unbearably high. Keaton keeps pace with Pacino as the older and wiser Kay keeps a wary glint in her eyes and a slight smile on her face that constantly asserts her willingness to be friends and also her utter refusal to be bullshitted again. Around them is a bravura exercise in controlled style from Coppola, if also more flamboyant than its predecessors. This time around the signature sequence of cross-cutting ceremony and violence is inflated into a cinematic movement depicting the Corleones watching and performing Cavalleria Rusticana, turning the film into a meta-theatrical event. Gestures from life recur on the stage and vice versa. Identity has become as a ritualised script everyone’s doomed to read from, a passion play constantly repeated as long as humans remain so in thrall to their base drives and desires.
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As if reacting to the Michael-driven portentousness of the previous instalment, Part III offers Garcia as a revival of some of Caan’s strident force, with a new jolt of sex appeal as Vincent flirts with Bridget Fonda’s go-get-‘em journalist Grace Hamilton, who’s trying to interview Michael, a tryst that results in Grace getting caught between Vincent and two of Zasa’s goons hired to kill him. Although Michael wants anything but a new wave of bloodshed (he coins the line that serves as emblematic for so many neo-noir antiheroes, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”), Vincent, with Connie’s encouragement and with Michael out of action because of a diabetic attack, whacks Zasa. This sequence combines elements of various earlier killings in the first two films, signalling to both audience and Michael that Vincent combines talents of the Corleones but also has a hunger for the down-and-dirty side of their world he never had. Like Connie, Vincent loves the Corleone mythos, remembering his forceful but foolish father as “prince of the city.” His romance with Mary swerves into an incestuous stew befitting dynastic self-propagation, but Michael successfully buys him off by making breaking off the affair the one condition for Vincent stepping into Michael’s place as commander of the family muscle. Michael cleverly uses Vincent to gain Altobello’s trust and uncover his connection to Lucchesi, and realises that the efforts to kill off the Immobiliaire deal endanger not just the Corleone family members but also the new Pope, who signs off on Michael’s deal despite, and or perhaps because, he knows all about Michael’s dank guilt.
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Sofia’s performance as Mary got a caning from many commentators after Part III’s release, years before she’d find her real metier. She was only given the part after originally slated star Winona Ryder pulled out at the last minute, although Francis wasn’t really taking such a chance on her as she’d given a promising performance in Rumblefish. It’s definitely true that her scenes with Garcia urgently lack the crackle they need to drive the forbidden romance angle. But she offers a blowsy adolescent naiveté that suits the role to a certain extent, in keeping with Francis’ casting philosophy throughout the series. The second two films extended the original novel’s annexation of pulp paperback history blended with tart probing into the proximity of politics with money. Part III revolves around popular conspiracy theories regarding John Paul I’s short tenure as Pope, supposedly assassinated to prevent financial malfeasance and organised crime ties being exposed. The infamous, so-called “God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, who finished up hanging from a London bridge in real life, is here represented as Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger), involved in siphoning off Vatican funds to Lucchesi and his pals, and killed by Vincent in his retaliatory strikes. These also see Gilday shot and dropped from a great height and Lucchesi slain by Calò, who has to approach the honcho without any kind of weapon but improvises by ramming the man’s own spectacles into his throat. Connie poisons Altobello with cannoli. But these moves fail to head off the Pope’s gentle murder by poisoned hot chocolate, whilst a roving hired assassin, Mosca (Mario Donatone), zeroes in on Michael. After killing Tommasino, who recognises him on the prowl, Mosca tries to gun Michael down as he watches his son perform.
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Mosca battles with Michael’s bodyguards, managing to avoid disturbing the performance and instead taking another shot at the target as he leaves the opera house, but instead kills Mary. Coppola’s visual hyperbole throughout this sequence, like the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now, sarcastically contrasts high culture with dirty business, whilst allowing Coppola to indulge pure artifice in a more functional way than in the odes to represented reality in One From The Heart and The Cotton Club, whilst the tension between realism and stylisation extends with shots as precisely composed as any classical art hacked through by the hard purpose of Hollywood editing. The howl of pain Michael releases over Mary’s body is at once bloodcurdling and cathartic, as it seems like the wail of protest as well as pain he’s longed to release since the death of Apollonia or perhaps even since his father’s shooting, woe and infinite regret for suffering given and inflicted and over the damned inevitability of it all, all of it fated since Michael’s promise to his father in his hospital bed. The last shot, of Michael quietly dying alone in great old age, confirms he was doomed for all his works and efforts to end up a ruined and solitary creature, nursing his ghosts and sorrows like a brood of black kittens. And yet the way Coppola shoots his end, settled in a chair in what was Tommasino’s garden, a place of placid and dreamy longings for the fallen titan, gives him more grace than his father’s slightly pathetic end. Michael leaves the world in a state of peaceful reflection in a setting of personal import, his memories of people, whether they died violently or not, now all rendered equal simply by time.

 

Standard
1960s, Comedy, French cinema, Thriller

Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur les Pianiste, 1960)

Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut

By Roderick Heath

The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).

Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute. Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview.

Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears. Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.

This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s. Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements.

Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect: Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.

Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.

Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.

The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).

The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.

Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.

Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.

Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.

Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.

Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.

A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be allowed him to dare offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.

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1950s, Drama, War

Fear and Desire (1953) / Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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By Roderick Heath

With the mystique sustained by Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for despotic precision and lofty solitude as a mature film artist, it’s at once amusing and fascinating to imagine him as a messily inventive ingénue with the usual roll call of geeky obsessions and filmic touchstones. Kubrick evolved from a camera-happy Bronx teen into a legendarily exacting visionary, and produced one of the most determinedly individualistic oeuvres in mainstream cinematic history, even as Kubrick attempted to hide from posterity the fruits of his apprentice days. Critic Pauline Kael backed him up in this, once commenting that his career began properly with The Killing (1956) and that, like a developed novelist, he ought to have been able to buy up and destroy his first two works. Kubrick almost managed this: thanks to the bankruptcy of its distributor, he was able to hide his first feature, Fear and Desire, for decades, and it has only recently reemerged from the realm of shadowy enigma known only to a handful of scholars and viewers with long memories. His follow-up, Killer’s Kiss, was never effectively impounded. Kubrick, a middling student with literary tastes, found a prodigious success as a photographer in the late ’40s, whilst still in his teens, first as a freelancer and then as a staff member of Look magazine. He married his high school flame Toba Metz, moved to Greenwich Village, and began to teach himself techniques of film production, a hobby that soon turned into an ambition. Kubrick made a handful of short documentaries and a brief foray into TV work before he finally set out to make his first feature-length film at the ripe old age of 25.

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The circumstances were hardly auspicious. Kubrick scraped together a budget of about $10,000 for the shoot, mostly thanks to his chemist uncle and his father’s cashed-in life insurance policy. The screenplay was written by another of Kubrick’s high school friends, the budding playwright Howard Sackler, who would later find repute with his 1968 work The Great White Hope. Kubrick had five actors, five crew members (including Toba), and a team of Mexican agricultural workers to lug around the film equipment. Shooting took place in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and the cast and crew were poisoned at one point by residual insecticide in a crop sprayer being used to create fog. Like most beginner works from notable filmmakers, there are obvious and powerful anticipations of Kubrick’s recurring interests, attitudes, and images. As movies unto themselves, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are near-equal mixtures of successful and unsuccessful elements, but for intriguingly distinct reasons that plainly reveal the young Kubrick trying to balance out the key aspects not only of his aesthetic repertoire, but also his personal intuition, perspective, and intellectual refrains.

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Fear and Desire is beset by the limited cinematic scope on offer, with its handful of actors, props, and settings. Kubrick leans heavily on Sackler’s script and the actors to imbue the project with a conceptual scale far larger than the production elements would allow. The film’s literary affectations, replete with broadly obvious metaphors and archly meditative dialogue, often suggest exactly what this project is: a bunch of young bohemian neophytes trying to make a high falutin’ statement about “the nature of war” in such a way that places them on a far “higher” plane than the grunt work of mere genre filmmaking. At times, Fear and Desire recalls Coleman Francis’ Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) for wedding cheapjack warfare to muddy existentialist posturing. Yet Fear and Desire, even at its most awkward and affected, bears the imprint of real artists, if ones still learning the meaning of art and the specifics of their own talents. Sackler’s dialogue occasionally possesses the music of poetry with hints of the influence of Eugene O’Neill, and Kubrick’s direction is consistently confident and fluent, especially considering the limitations upon him, and occasionally remarkable. Fear and Desire depicts a war without a defined setting, era, or antagonists. It’s conflict boiled down to essentials, a primal saga of lost and maddened individuals seeking personal meaning even in the midst of impersonal and indiscriminate killing, going up against men no different to themselves, emphasised by the fact that Kubrick makes them literal doppelgängers, the actors playing their opposite numbers.

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A similar dynamic and mood to Kubrick’s later war films is clearly present in a blunt and embryonic form, as the struggle seems to stumble far beyond its nominal boundaries and the protagonists attempt to keep their heads and their souls together deep in enemy territory, for example, the beset patrols of Path of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the bomber pilots of Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The landscape they fight through is an eerie, atavistic zone of dispute, with a forest out of the Grimm Brothers and a sludgy river that calls to mind Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Four soldiers are stranded here after their plane crashes: the educated, slightly supercilious Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), who reflects sardonically on their situation even as he tries to think of a way out of it; the likeable, poetic, but mentally fraying Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky); the stolid Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit); and the yearning, working-class philosopher Sgt. “Mac” Mackenzie (Frank Silvera). Stranded several miles from the front line, the quartet decide, after some argument and digression, to build a raft and float down the river to their own lines. They encounter an obviously domesticated dog, which they fear might be a tracker’s animal, but it instead runs off in confusion. As they bundle together logs into a makeshift vessel, a low-flying aircraft shoots over them, and the soldiers are worried that it saw them, but it proves to have landed in a field close to a hut where an enemy general seems to be residing. Desperate for food and weapons, the soldiers stage an assault on an outpost, successfully sneaking up on and killing two enemy combatants dining within, and then killing two more when they arrive.

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This sequence is where a future great director seems most clearly emergent, with a burst of technique, rapid montage, which Kubrick offered only sparingly later in his career. He depicts the ambush of the two enemy soldiers, caught eating their dinner, as a frenetic explosion of physical and cinematic brutality, his edits carving them up into furiously squirming limbs, savage and desperate mouths, and spilt food mashed and clawed by desperate fingers into a whirl of corporeal mush. Kubrick entwines sustenance and death into the most basic of the essential parallels that will extend throughout his career, the closeness of primal experience to the surface of the human condition no matter how becalmed and effete its self-erected circumstances. The victorious raiders settle down to claim the weapons of the men they’ve killed and eat their food, with Mac slobbering down stew with wolfish glee, celebrating his victory—his proclaimed right to live another day and beat his competitors—with the most direct of statements and the least evolved animal enthusiasm. The anticipations here are redolent of the Neanderthal discoveries of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The script archly contrasts plebeian vulgarity, embodied by Mac, with the educated Corby’s quietly insufferable pontifications, as when he watches Mac and comments he’s found the perfect metaphor for war, “cold stew on a blazing island…with a tempest of gunfire around it to fan the flames,” and surveys the dead soldiers sprawled in the blank-eyed shock of sudden death and notes, as if sarcastically rebutting the title-expressed thesis of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, “No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago—before the Ice Age—the glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands.”

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The enemy general, also played by Harp, shares with his fellow officer this tendency towards overt philosophising, in a darker, even weightier fashion, reclining with distinctly aristocratic poise as he reflects on his status as a destroyer and sacrificer of men with pain and misgiving. The schematic split of the characters remains ponderously obvious even as Kubrick’s cinematic wit and actors try to shake them into independent life. But it’s clear that Kubrick would reiterate the schisms he describes here, in increasingly sophisticated terms, to become statements enacted on macrocosmic and cultural levels in his later works, and most immediately in Paths of Glory and Spartacus (1960), where culturally elevated and educated figures parade their civility as justifications for oppressing others dismissed as subhuman. Mac, for his part, makes a play for existential victory: in recognising his essential inconsequentiality and probable fate after the war is finished to return to a life of effaced labour, he determines to destroy the enemy general, even if it means dying in the process, simply to prove his existence has meaning and effect on the larger scheme of things. To this end, he talks Corby into approving his simple but effective plan to row downstream on the raft and distract the general’s guards, giving Corby and the others time to strike at the general himself. Mac’s voyage down to the river is a thrilling moment sporting the most successful of the film’s attempts at presenting interior monologue, as Mac meditates on his motivations, at once pathetic and transcendent, shot from a low angle by Kubrick with dark sky and looming trees sliding by above and giving mystical force to Mac’s self-constructed destiny.

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The film’s second great scene arrives as the team are forced to take a local peasant girl prisoner. The girl has been washing clothes in the river with some other women and comes across the soldiers hiding in the bushes,cueing an electrifying moment when the girl spots the eyes watching her from the behind the leaves and as her own eyes widen in alarm, the men suddenly erupt to grasp her. As even Corby’s interest in their captive seems a touch too intense for a moment, it’s Mac who drawls, half-sarcastically, “Let’s try to remain civilised.” Worried that this girl might have seen their raft, still sitting on the riverbank half-finished, the men tie her to a tree. Corby leaves Sidney to watch over her, but this proves to be a mistake. Sidney’s fermenting trauma from the killings in the hut begins to boil over, and the silent, uncomprehending girl becomes a blank slate for Sidney to write his insecurities and caprices upon, trying to entertain her with a grotesque dumb show in which he pretends to be a general dining, in between molesting her with a pathetic, dissociated neediness. When he unties her because she seems responsive, she runs off, and Sidney shoots her in the back. Sidney spirals into complete madness, randomly quoting The Tempest before dashing off into the woods. Kubrick’s career strand of vividly visualised, fetishistic, erotic textures is insistently nascent here, as he zeroes in on Sidney’s and the girl’s legs as he embraces her when still tied to the tree, his fatigues and combat boots and her bare legs in a sickly dance. Mazursky, who would become a noted director in his own right, offers a performance that anticipates Kubrick’s contradictory fondness for blackly comedic, violently expressive, almost cartoonish performances that would punctuate—and puncture—the veneers of studious realism in his movies. Among such performances are Timothy Carey and Peter Sellers’ turns for him, Malcolm MacDowell’s Alex DeLarge, and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.

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Mac’s plan proves fairly successful, but he is seriously wounded by fire from the riverbank. He drifts downstream, where Sidney, still deep in delirium, gets on board, and the two pieces of human wreckage float toward their lines. Corby and Fletcher succeed in assassinating the general and his aide-de-camp, with the inevitable irony that they are killing their own doppelgängers: the wounded general drags himself across the floor and out the door and manages to croak, “I surrender!” just before Corby kills him. Corby and Fletcher manage to flee in the general’s plane, making it back to their own base and then trudging back to the riverside to await Mac and Sidney as they drift through the enveloping fog. Kubrick returns to the opening shot of the forested landscape just as the pair on the raft float in toward the pair ashore, with Sidney plainly mad and Mac possibly dead. The haunting, numinous visuals filled with wallowing haze, and the awkward attempts by Corby to find words to rationalise their experience, all look forward to the coda of Full Metal Jacket.

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Despite the film’s main fault, an inability to discern and sustain its best instincts, it is, in spite of Kubrick’s later dismissal of it as an amateurish work, actually marked out by a general avoidance of many pitfalls of such low-budget cinema. Kubrick’s blocking of his actors is usually strong, and sometimes he achieves some artful compositions. Kubrick is plainly fascinated by the spectacle and meaning of death, repeatedly presenting moments of demise as first a pounding wallop of mortality and then a sudden emptiness. He constantly returns to study the faces of the dead—the girl’s, the enemy soldiers, the general’s—to contemplate their shocked, staring emptiness, to ram home a sense of curtailed existence, the humanity suddenly gone from these puppets whose strings have been cut.

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The initial cost of Fear and Desire was blown out considerably by post-production work, and despite impressing some notable culturati like James Agee and Mark Van Doren, it failed financially. Kubrick hurriedly signed on to make another short documentary for the Seafarers International Union to raise money for his next attempt, but he again needed added help from family and friends to fund Killer’s Kiss. Again, it was almost a one-man production for the erstwhile auteur, but this time, Kubrick firmly made his mark on the people who saw the result. Killer’s Kiss sees Kubrick seemingly more at home in the precincts of Manhattan he had spent his teenaged years haunting as a photographer, to the point where the film often feels less like a narrative movie than a photographic record and portfolio showing off the manifold attractions, both glitzy and seamy, of the cityscape. Certainly, immersing himself in this world allowed Kubrick to fill his film up with cinema verite inserts, and celebrate his native city with a zesty immediacy and authenticity that contrasts the studiously crafted, perfectly controlled facsimiles he came to prefer working in. Killer’s Kiss is an apt follow-up to Fear and Desire in some ways, similarly taking up a hoary situation and endeavouring to essay it with a stripped-down focus on psychological turmoil and experiential intensity. But where the debut film was literary in tone, Killer’s Kiss presents raw cinematic values tethered to a thin story pretext, one that shows Kubrick had been busy consuming movies, particularly recent noir films, as well as a panoply of Expressionist and Soviet filmmakers, and the dean of young America filmic geniuses, Orson Welles.

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Kubrick’s subsequent move to always provide himself with a solid literary base for his films explained by the fact that his script for Killer’s Kiss is only sufficient. Sensitive palooka Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) and degraded princess Gloria Price (Irene Kane) never quite feel real as characters, and the story is exceedingly simple. Nonetheless, Killer’s Kiss provides constant hints as to the diastolic nature of Kubrick’s eventual oeuvre. If Fear and Desire anticipates the hemisphere of Kubrick’s work preoccupied by human devolution, violence, and corrosive destruction, most usually apparent in his war films, but often emerging in others, Killer’s Kiss follows on from Sgt. Mac’s existential mission. It presents a hero who is beset by trials on an almost cosmic scale, and the questing protagonist, sometimes heroic, sometime not, but always driven in Kubrick’s films, comes fully to life here in its basic St. George and the Dragon tale of burnt-out boxer Davey who falls for his neighbour Gloria, but has to win her from mid-level gangster Vincent Rapallo (Silvera).

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Gloria works in that common euphemistic profession of dance hostess in the club Rapallo runs. Kubrick stages his opening sequence as a study in urban alienation with underpinnings of mysterious connection, as Davey prepares for his evening’s bout and Gloria for a night’s work in their flats with facing windows over a narrow alley. Kubrick makes an oddball visual pun as he peers at Davey through the distorting glass of his fishbowl, likening it to the fishbowl proximity of the two apartments and lives whilst suggesting the perversion of natural community such city living sustains. He follows them as they leave their flats and emerge from the building simultaneously. Welles’ influence is immediately in evidence here in the deep focus and use of distortion effects, but the overall design of the sequence, tracing the two characters in their separate paths to events that will see them both put their bodies on the line for other people’s benefit, evokes more the Russian and German directors Kubrick went to school on: whereas Fear and Desire is replete with Soviet Realist close-ups and edits, here Eisenstein is present in the use of dialectic montage, and the holistic analysis of Dziga Vertov looms, too.

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Kubrick dynamically intercuts to continue the sense of synchronicity conjoining the man and woman as Kubrick intercuts Davey having his hands the taped for the fight with Gloria dolling herself up in a dressing room at Rapallo’s club. The synchronicity continues as Rapallo mauls Gloria on the aphrodisiac high of watching Davey on television, as he is pummelled and finally knocked down in a fight scene. Their bout is depicted in a seemingly endless, nightmarish series of shots from below at the very edge of the ring, the fighters looming and reeling with sweat-sodden skin and forming near-abstract patterns of force, whilst Rapallo gathers up Gloria, fingering her back with consuming purpose like a spider crawling on a flower. After his fight, Davey goes home and suffers through a nightmare in which he’s flying along empty city streets rendered in a hallucinatory negative image, anticipatory of no lesser moment than the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Davey is spiritual antecedent to the peculiar avatars of the human condition who bob up again and again in Kubrick’s films, as a hero who is beset and outmatched by great systems of power, but ennobled by his contradictory mix of civility and brutality to become almost mythic in scale. Whereas this figure became increasingly more ambiguous in Kubrick’s work, Davey’s eventual outright battle with Rapallo over Gloria is simple in the extreme, almost on the level of the scuffle of the apes over the water hole in 2001, a contest for breeding rights.

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Davey is awakened from his nightmare by the sounds of Gloria screaming, and he looks through the window to see Rapallo assaulting her. Rapallo flees, and Davey solicitously puts Gloria to bed and watches over her. Gloria explains how and why Rapallo came to be in her apartment, and recounts her tragic life story. She came from a fairly well-off family that sadly disintegrated with her father’s death. Her dancing prodigy sister, who had given up dancing to marry a rich man to help ease the family’s debts, committed suicide, an act for which the young Gloria blamed herself. The insertion of this odd, dreamlike sequence sees Kubrick straining to avoid lapsing into mere conversational filmmaking with sophomoric technique, and coupled with the uncertainty of the writing adds to the patchiness of the film’s total effect. But again, it’s an anticipation of Kubrick’s more concerted, applied games with chronology in The Killing, whilst the contrast of the brutal emotions Gloria describes with the artistry of the dancing on screen predicts Kubrick’s obsessive fascination with immediate contrasts of human civilisation and fragility.

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Having at last breached the divide between them, Davey invites Gloria to accompany him as he quits New York and boxing for his family’s ranch near Seattle, and Gloria accepts. When they head to Times Square so Gloria can end it with Rapallo, Davey asks for his manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett) to come and pay him off there. Rapallo’s goons (Mike Dana and Felice Orlandi) mistake Albert for Davey and kill him, and they snatch Gloria away. Following Gloria’s disappearance, Davey goes back to his apartment, only to have to skip out ahead of some policemen who think that he killed Albert. Davey, realising what’s happened, follows Rapallo to a warehouse district, where his goons are keeping Gloria captive, and almost successfully bails them up long enough to get her away; but, of course, no dragon ever gives up a princess easily.

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Whereas Fear and Desire saw Kubrick denaturalising his embryonic art by venturing deep in alien territory, Killer’s Kiss sings Kubrick’s familiarity with the environs he’s depicting. The story is plainly an assemblage of elements Kubrick obviously enjoyed in several contemporary noir films, including 99 River Street (1953) and Body and Soul (1947), and Kubrick presents some excellent noir-infused shots and sequences. But Killer’s Kiss still often feels less a genre pastiche than a rough draft for the New York indie film scene, which would explode within a decade, with aspects of cinema verite realism and improvisatory zeal: Cassavettes, Scorsese, Lumet and De Palma are lurking in its genome. Whereas in Fear and Desire there was nothing to point his camera at but the faces of his actors, this movie is often at its most engaging when simply, metaphorically glancing over its shoulder at street scenes and enjoying New York as more than a glorified set, a microcosm where romantic glamour and grit sit cheek by jowl, and the city’s protean strangeness can upset the best laid plans, most fruitfully illustrated when two fez-wearing bohemians at play in Times Square prove a nuisance to Davey, precipitating the narrative’s swerve into melodrama. Whilst the contrast with the stylised, set-bound New York of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is self-evident, the same essential atmosphere is evident, of a world unto itself filled with places offering both romantic sanctuary and soul-distorting experience. Gloria’s pointed, almost brutal rejection of Rapallo as too old (“You smell!”) suggests Kubrick’s understanding of the mercilessness of youth, later crucial to Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, showing that already Kubrick’s sense of character ambiguity and the way biology often trumps civility was even-handed and encompassing.

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Kubrick’s visual patterning, so clearly developed in a work like The Shining (1980), is nascent here, as he notes the painted ads for Rapallo’s dance hall with their lacquered, beaming fantasy girls, contrasting the realities of Gloria’s life. This seemingly casual but recurring piece of editorial illustration twins functionally with both Gloria’s ghostly sister dancing in hyper-feminine perfection whilst her sad end is recounted, and the climax, where Rapallo and Davey battle, quite literally, over their mutual object of desire in a space filled with idealised feminine forms — mannequins arrayed in endless variables on the essential human form, headless or handless, smashed as shields and cleaved into fragments in the ultimate dumb-show variation on the film’s obsession with the human body as battlefield. The scenes leading up to this final duel are dazzling in their way, indeed already quite masterly, apart from the awkward moment of Davey’s actual escape by jumping through a window, a stunt that’s poorly staged and a trifle unbelievable. Kubrick’s staging of Davey’s raid on Rapallo’s hideout, his near-defeat by the goons, and the subsequent chase through back alleys and across rooftops, the cityscape stretching around them like an alien landscape, emphasises raw physical force and experience again, with Rapallo leering over the captive Gloria with a punitive blend of erotic delight and fury, mocking her efforts to appease him, and the hero and villains equally composed of nerve, muscle, blunder and skill as they all contend with the danger of the chase. Here the hero and villain, with the villain clutching an axe exactly the same as the one with which Jack Torrance would menace his family in The Shining, are still cleanly demarcated, whereas by Kubrick’s later films, they would often coalesce into Janus-faced singular figures like Alex and Jack. The Welles influence becomes acute again in the mannequin warehouse fight, and possibly that of Michael Powell, too, for as the ballet sequence invokes The Red Shoes (1948), so this scene and aspects of the film in general recalls Powell’s Contraband (1940), where the kidnapping villains were undone in a warehouse full of plaster busts. The film’s final, cheering triumph for assailed lovers right on the cusp of apparent surrender to alienation again looks forward to Eyes Wide Shut.

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Kubrick’s collaboration with Silvera in these first two movies is worth noting. Silvera was an African-American actor who was able to get away with playing a wide variety of ethnic roles, and he inhabits the characters of Mac and Silvera with a seamless, professional capacity that the young Kubrick must have appreciated, especially when compared with the more awkward, theatrical performances around him. Silvera offers strikingly different characterisations that sustain a common thread of frustration in being stymied in a desire for the better, sweeter, grander experiences in life, and it’s hard not to empathise with Rapallo’s pungent offence when Gloria spurns him, even if he is a monster. It’s certainly the first of a string of memorable collaborations Kubrick would have with reliable star actors like Kirk Douglas and Sterling Hayden, and, more particularly, peculiar or chameleonic character actors like Peter Sellers, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Philip Stone. Kubrick benefited from the changing state of the American film world in the 1950s, as the rise of television and legal blows to the hegemony of the studio system were beginning to create new avenues into the industry as producers and stars looked further afield for talent. Within a year of wrapping Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick would achieve his first truly impressive balance of form and function in The Killing, and within seven years of handcrafting Fear and Desire, he was stepping in to rescue the multimillion production Spartacus. Young Stanley was going places.

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2000s, Chinese cinema, Crime/Detective

Election (2005)

Hak se wui

Director: Johnny To

By Roderick Heath

Johnny To has emerged in the past few years as a master of Hong Kong genre cinema, filling the void left by the departure and disgrace of John Woo and other industry notables in Hollywood adventures. To and Woo share characteristics, both concentrating on bristling macho dramatics, each analysing fundamental social, business, and personal bonds through the charged metaphors of the gangster film, and both channelling the influence of foreign masters like Ford, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Leone into their localised aesthetic. They’re very different in other respects, however: where Woo is usually an operatic executor of movies that are fundamentally about movies, reverent of the given structures and precepts of the genre film, To is much more of an ironist, willing to play games with his audience’s expectations in laying out standard elements and then executing simple, but brilliantly effective twists. To’s as strong a stylist as any in modern cinema, but a purposeful, efficient one, saving pyrotechnics for the moment of maximum impact, and with his dancing camerawork, lightning editing, and keen mise-en-scène, he barely wastes a frame. Election proved something of a breakthrough for him in terms of overseas attention, and it’s not hard to see why.

The story is fairly simple, but To keeps his pieces moving on the board so fast it’s a challenge to stay focused. The Wo Sing triad, one of the most notable—but far from only—illegal organisations in Hong Kong is having an election for its chairman, who serves for two-year spells. The tradition of the election is over a hundred years old, and the codes that bind the triad members together go back even further, to the days of resistance against the Manchus and the rebellions of the Shaolin monks. The two candidates to replace outgoing boss Whistle (Chung Wang) are Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), two temperamentally disparate kingpins. Lok is calm, disdainful of showy expressions of power, the kind of guy who walks around his neighbourhood and converses with shopkeepers without a weapon or bodyguards, a detail which speaks of his certainty of power. He keeps a fine apartment with his son Denny (Jonathan Lee). Big D is far less restrained: married to a potent kingmaker wife (Maggie Shiu), he’s a man who smiles and cajoles with excessive pleasantness and explodes in childish tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. And he doesn’t, when, in spite of his carefully administered bribes to some of the “uncles” who form the decisive circle of triad chiefs, Lok wins the election as the most honourable and respectable of the choices.

Big D decides to dispute the election, and kidnaps two of the uncles he blames for his loss, cranky old Long Gun (Yuen-Yin Yu) and dissolute Sam (Robert Hung), whom he’d bribed but who failed to vote for him because there wasn’t enough money to go around. He nails them inside wooden crates, and rolls them repeatedly down a mountainside until they’re bloodied, dazed messes. Calling up Whistle, he threatens their lives unless Whistle helps him in challenging the triad’s guardian of tradition, Teng Wai (Wong Tin Lam); Whistle responds by having a subordinate hide the carved dragon-motif baton that is the symbol of authority in the Wo Sing in mainland China. Big D senses he might still stake a claim to the governorship if he can get hold of the baton by proving that he has the muscle and guts to snatch the baton to those who would still deny his authority.

Getting wind of an impending clash between the quickly polarising sides, the police, commanded by stoic Chief Superintendent Hui (David Chiang), drag in all the uncles, including Lok and Big D, who, still raging at his fellow uncles who he thinks betrayed him, begins kicking Whistle in front of reporters whilst waiting to be taken into the police station. Whistle flees the violence, but is run over by a car and critically injured. The cops, desperate not to see a gang war start, only want to force the uncles to find a way to sort out their problems. But events threaten to spiral out of everyone’s control as rival bands of men loyal to Big D and the other uncles try to fetch the baton from its hiding place in Guangzhou, and an embittered Whistle tries to blab from his hospital bed.

To’s quick eye takes in a raft of small details that fill out the universe of the triad bosses with alternatively disarming and dismaying effect. Most of these gangsters aren’t actually very tough or especially good at their jobs—they’re mostly middle-age men whose days of roughneck street warfare and standover work are behind them. Amongst the younger ones, who include young punks with something to prove, and genuinely fierce warriors in need of a watchful eye, the slickest is the preternaturally cool Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), who distributes bribes and collects debts whilst also attending seminars in finance. Small and large rituals—Teng Wai making tea for the uncles to seal their election decision; a later, full-on, religious-flavoured, blood-brother ceremony—define and seal their society. The power of ritual and tradition is simultaneously endangered, illusory, and still binding in subtle and supple ways. The governorship of the triad is established by totems and oaths, and but these are only emblems of real things, and the competition to command the emblems will finally express the reality of those symbols. As the film plays out, the meanings of those symbols become thoroughly apparent.

Election also hints at broader meanings through its title: the election, the illusion of democracy, is a sanctified ritual in the triad. But it’s only possible because of the mutual consent of powerful men, and To encompasses the history of Hong Kong and the relationship of Chinese society to centuries of hegemonic rulers both foreign and domestic. Simultaneously, what adherence to a creed means is taken seriously all the way through, even though the drama is driven by upstart Big D’s refusal to accept the rules, a breach of the creed. He threatens that if he doesn’t get his way, he will break away and form his own triad, a potent threat indeed as no one wants a war. The police know they can’t stamp out the triads, and are happy to act as something like referees in this game to reduce collateral damage; their attempts to corral the uncles before the situation combusts prove partly successful. In a moment that’s both ribald and telling, Long Gun, whilst berating Sam and Big D for failing to give a big enough bribe, orders a nubile young prostitute to jump up and down for him: those old farts are happy as long as their pockets are stuffed, their dicks are wet, and the world’s jumping to their regulated beat.

In the film’s sustained, exhilarating central movement, the battling factions and the police try to beat each other in ferrying the baton out of China, leading to the teeth-gnashing moment between two intermediate members. Kun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), functionary for a boss who’s signed on with Big D because he’ll sell their drugs at a higher rate, beats Lok loyalist Big Head (Suet Lam) with a log to get him to give up the baton, whilst Big Head recites the words of their triad oath, explicating the bizarre bond of corporeal grit and spiritual adherence that keeps the Triad bound together. But then Kun gets a call from his boss, telling him the plan’s changed: he’s now to make sure that the baton comes home to Lok, and he has to apologise to the bloodied, battered Big Head before immediately leaving with the baton, knocking over a policeman in his relentless drive back to Hong Kong. He then passes the baton on to motorcycle-riding, hard-as-nails kung-fu warrior Jet (Nick Cheung), who was first glimpsed in the film taking offence to Big D’s patronising jokes, which caused him to crush up and eat a ceramic spoon as a fuck-you to the wannabe overlord; we know then he’d rather die than let Big D get the baton. With Jimmy Lee, who manages to intercept him, they beat off a mob of his men, Jimmy stuffing one heavy into a barrel and stomping on the lid until he’s trapped like a Looney Tunes character and Jet finishing up with a machete jutting from his shoulder. But the pair’s grit sees them victorious and Lok gains the baton. It’s the most generically satisfying part of the film as a blindingly executed piece of action.

Terrific little details flitter by at high speed, like the “you’re full of shit!” look Jimmy wears in listening to Uncle Sam’s swearing he’s not going to gamble any more, or Teng recalling how the baton once had to be sprayed down with insecticide after the last election because the former holder was such a slob. There are points in Election where even fierce attention won’t really reward a first-time viewer. Many of the bosses and their henchmen are swiftly introduced and barely distinguishable, though that’s probably intentional. Lok’s supine calm and Big D’s hot-headed smarm are, on the other hand, very carefully contrasted to carefully manipulate initial impressions. Lok, with his calm demeanour and general reputation for honour and chivalry within the triad, seems by far the better man, yet one senses that Lok’s security in his sense of power gives him a great capacity for ruthlessness. This is proven when, to make sure Whistle doesn’t blab to the cops, he has Whistle’s son run down by a truck and threatens that his daughter will be next, causing Whistle to commit suicide by pulling out his own life support. Once the baton’s in Lok’s hands, he reaches out to Big D, bringing him into his plan to expand the Wo Sing’s turf by taking over another triad’s territory: Big D pretends then to make an alliance with that triad’s boss, Brother Dinosaur (Bo Yuen), only to team with Lok to kill him, Big D relishing stabbing and kicking the dying man. All suddenly seems right in the Wo Sing world again.

But To saves his most brutal and amazing flourish for the very end: when Lok, Denny, and Mr. and Mrs. Big D share a bucolic afternoon fishing, Big D, pleased by how things are going, suggests that he and Lok share the Wo Sing governorship as some other triad bosses have done. Lok says they’ll have to talk it over with the fellow bosses, and then, when Denny and Mrs. D are momentarily absent, he picks up a huge rock and bashes Big D’s head in with it. Mrs. D sees him and tries to run away, but Lok catches her, throttles her, and buries her with her husband in an unmarked grave, before calmly driving home with his son, who witnessed his violence, in glazed, silent trauma, into a blood-red sunset.

The ending is both a ruthlessly concise trash job on the veneer of gangland civility that brings to mind the climax of Scorsese’s Casino (1995)—indeed, the thought of Scorsese having remade this film rather than the far less inspired Infernal Affairs is a tantalising one—with its galvanising, surprisingly prolonged, and truthful violence, but it’s also a coldly logical culmination of all that has proceeded. Lok’s unremitting execution of his rival and his problematic wife is both power politics defined, and obedience to the creed of the triad. Big D has violated the society’s laws and defied the judgement of the uncles, and he pays the price for that violation in the same way that Big Head defended the laws: at the cost of having his body pummelled, but this time unto death. This hardly leavens the final disturbing vision of Lam Lok as a brutal psychopath, his son’s haunted look saying all that’s necessary about life in this world even as they slip back into their social roles. The savage excellence of this coda elevates Election far above the pack.

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